A Monster Calls | J.A. Bayona | December 23, 2016/January 6, 2017
It can’t be denied that storytelling and art are powerful vehicles. They can drive real life movements like the Harry Potter Alliance, or they can help a young preteen cope with the dissolution of his family, like in A Monster Calls.
A Monster Calls follows Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a 12-year-old in a small British town. He’s a latchkey kid, quiet in school (making him a target for the class bully), and artistic, taking after his mum Elizabeth (Felicity Jones – just coming off of Rogue One). But his mum isn’t getting any better after some last-ditch cancer treatments, so he retreats into his creative zone, which summons a humanoid walking and talking tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson; mo-capped by Tom Holland) from a nearby yew tree in a church graveyard at 12:07 AM. The monster tells Conor he’ll return to tell him 3 stories at the same time of night, after which Conor will tell him a story of his own – the truth he doesn’t want to confront. Meanwhile, his grandma (Sigourney Weaver – next in The Defenders) arrives to watch him while Mum’s in the hospital, and his LA-based estranged dad (Toby Kebbell – coming off of Ben Hur) is visiting with an invite to come stay for Christmas.
On one hand, this is a more restrained film from Bayona, whose last feature was the family disaster drama The Impossible, featuring a monstrous CGI tsunami and a whole lot of extraneous water effects. On the other, there’s a CGI tree monster in what feels like half the film (but is more than likely a third of the film, when you’re including the watercolor-animated stories. But the CG creature work is unique and massive, yet detailed, bolstered by Neeson’s gravelly Irish accent and adding to the story. It’s like watching an Ent or a gigantic but very verbose Groot. And that doesn’t even cover the watercolor-style animation, which is a beautiful and welcome blend of computer, hand-drawn, 2D, and 3D animation.
There are more to stories than the good guy versus the bad guy, and there are more to people, who sometimes prefer to believe and accept lies as the truth (like in the Monster’s stories). And I can find very little to nothing about A Monster Calls that warrants nitpicking. So I’ll end with this: if you want a heartrending film with a solid low fantasy coping mechanism at its core and magnificent art woven throughout the film, go see A Monster Calls.